Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Book on Opium Gets Its Facts Wrong

    A new book titled Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction by Steve Martin has been recently published.  Martin is a collector of opium smoking paraphernalia and has an online museum [Link] that has some cool pictures of opium pipes, dens and smokers.  I haven't read the book but based on this interview with Collectors Weekly [Link], it seems Martin is woefully uneducated about the basic pharmacology of opium.  Take the following quotes for example:

    "The interesting thing about opium is that until the Chinese invented this system for vaporization—sometime in the 18th century—there was no pleasurable way to ingest opium. People were eating it. People were smoking it, mixed with tobacco. But eating it causes really bad side effects, the worst being constipation for weeks. And burning it destroys certain alkaloids in the opium that make the intoxication enjoyable."

    "Then a Chinese inventor whose name is completely lost to history came up with a system for vaporizing it. That invention opened the door for opium to become a recreational drug. Suddenly, all the bad side effects were lessened. Vaporizing opium takes out a lot of the morphine content, which is the thing that makes you feel stupefied and out of it. Good-quality opium, smoked with the proper accoutrements, is energizing. It doesn’t put you on the floor. Well, you’re lying on the floor to do the actual smoking, but that’s just because it’s the most comfortable position to hold the pipe over the lamp."

    There are numerous alkaloids in opium the most important being morphine (and to a lesser extent codeine).  Morphine is responsible for the majority of the effects of opium and while opium is not the same as morphine, opium minus the morphine is just not opium.  It is like cannabis without THC or beer without alcohol.  Opium is just as active when eaten, brewed into a tea, taken as an alcoholic tincture (laudnum) or smoked.  The route of administration does have some impact on the drug experience, but not in the way Martin describes.  Eating it does not cause "really bad  side effects" that can be countered by smoking.  Constipation is a side effect of morphine that cannot be avoided by smoking it.  While its true that vaporizing opium "takes out" (degrades from the heat) some of the morphine, a lot of morphine is also lost (not absorbed) when opium is eaten.  Opium was a popular recreational drug and medicine long before the 18th century.

    The most egregious error comes from this line in the book description:  "At once a powerful personal story and a fascinating historical survey, Opium Fiend brims with anecdotes and lore surrounding the drug that some have called the methamphetamine of the nineteenth-century."

    Methamphetamine and opium are about as different as two drugs can be.  Methamphetamine is a stimulant, opium a narcotic analgesic.  Martin may have put together a nice collection of opium smoking images, but if this is the results of "years of intensive research" he should go back to school.

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